Unlike this afternoon’s panel, the participants in the SXSW Big Star showcase — turned tribute since the sudden death of lead singer Alex Chilton from a heart attack on Wednesday, reportedly during his preparations for this week’s trip to Austin — didn’t spend a lot of time telling stories. Music was the vehicle used to celebrate Chilton’s life, and the dozen-plus artists who gathered at Antone’s did it with a level of ease and familiarity that honored the man’s talent in a way no freshly-composed words could: They played his songs, because they knew them by heart.
The night began with the reading of a revealing letter written by Chilton’s wife, Laura. She told of his love for “old rickety houses” and homeless people; of the way he gave time and money with no strings attached; of his listening skills and compassion. He was a fan of classical baroque music, Scott Joplin, Petula Clark, and Teenage Fanclub. He loved riding his bike. While old friend Heather West read Laura’s words aloud t0 the hushed room, her voice cracked. Reggaeton came blasting through the walls — SXSW doesn’t stop, even for grieving. “He had a blase attitude towards death,” West read. “It didn’t interest him. Same goes for sleep. Life was too interesting and he didn’t want to spend it sleeping.” Safe to say the memorial gathering at Antone’s, as it pushed close to the 2 a.m. hour, was in full agreement with that sentiment.
The wonderfully endless parade of singers who stopped by the club to pay tribute was the expected who’s who: Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, M. Ward, Chris Stamey of the dB’s, John Doe of X. Chuck Prophet stepped in on “Thank You Friends,” Mike Mills of R.E.M. plastered “Jesus Christ” with happiness, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads lent pathos to “Nightime” and the harmonies of “Try Again,” alongside folkie Amy Speace. Sondre Lerche was the night’s biggest hit — he had maybe the best song in “Ballad of El Goodo,” and delivered a vocal befitting the material. The house band was anchored by original Big Star member Jody Stephens behind the drum kit, with occasional appearances from initial bassist Andy Hummel; replacement frontman Jon Auer — who declared the night to be “really hard” — and bassist Ken Stringfellow (both of the Posies) held down the rest of the fort as they had ever since Big Star reformed in the ’90s, with Auer’s reedy voice fitting into Chilton’s lines in sometimes eerily similar ways. Song after song, the music radiated joy, and despite the conspicuous lack of Chilton solo material, it served as both a starter kit and a trip down memory lane for the capacity crowd.
Susan Cowsill and the Watson Twins — alongside Auer, Stringfellow, Stephens, Mills, and Hummel — closed out the night on “September Gurls,” after which Stephens took the mic for the first and only time. “You’ve wrapped your arms around us, and we appreciate it,” he said. It may not have been the ideal ending for SXSW 2010, but coming after a showcase spent focused on music over hype, and history over buzz, it was perhaps the most welcome. R.I.P., Alex.
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